People who follow a vegetarian diet typically avoid foods and food byproducts that involve the death of animals.
Still, some foods like certain cheeses may fall into a grey area.
This article explores whether vegetarianism allows cheese and which types are more suitable for stricter vegetarians.
Whether cheese is vegetarian-friendly depends on the type of vegetarianism you follow.
Generally, vegetarians avoid consuming specific animal products. There are different types of vegetarians, including (
- Lacto-vegetarians: avoid eggs and animal flesh but allow dairy
- Ovo-vegetarians: avoid dairy and animal flesh but allow eggs
- Lacto-ovo-vegetarians: avoid animal flesh but allow dairy and eggs
- Pesco-vegetarians (pescatarians): allow seafood but avoid red meat, poultry, and sometimes dairy and eggs
- Vegans: avoid animal flesh, seafood, dairy, eggs, and sometimes honey
All these types of vegetarianism avoid red meat, poultry, and other products requiring the slaughtering of an animal.
Given that dairy — including cheese — does not require the slaughtering of an animal, it’s usually permitted by lacto- and lacto-ovo-vegetarians, as well as some pescatarians.
On the other hand, vegans avoid all animal products or animal byproducts, including dairy and milk. Because most cheese is made from cow’s or goat’s milk, most types are not vegan-friendly.
Most vegetarians avoid products that require the slaughter of an animal. Because cheesemaking falls outside of this practice, many vegetarians allow cheese in their diet.
Keep in mind that some cheeses are made using animal byproducts for texture and taste.
One common animal byproduct used in cheesemaking is rennet. Rennet is a combination of enzymes that work together to thicken dairy-based milk (
Chymosin comprises 90% of the enzymes in rennet, while the remaining 10% consists of lipase and pepsin. Together, these enzymes work to curdle casein, which is the protein found in dairy-based cheese (
While there are different types of rennet, the most commonly used one is found within the stomach lining of animals, including cows, rabbits, pigs, and goats. Most commonly, it’s derived from the fourth stomach of young calves that are first slaughtered for their meat (
Although animals are not typically slaughtered exclusively for their rennet, some people who follow a vegetarian diet may not feel comfortable eating this animal byproduct.
Thus, these rennet-containing cheeses may not be suitable for stricter vegetarians, though it may be fine for others. This is largely a matter of personal choice or belief system.
Different types of rennet
It’s worth noting that some forms of rennet are produced without the use of animals (
Vegetable rennet is made via a fermentation process in which bacteria, fungi, or yeasts are mixed with rennet-producing animal genes to create an enzyme that acts like chymosin (
Another type is plant rennet, which is also made to mimic animal rennet. It’s sourced from thistle plants like artichokes or nettles and used in many artisanal cheeses from Portugal.
Mold rennet can also act like chymosin. However, this is not typically used in cheesemaking, as it can impart a bitter taste.
In addition to dairy, some cheeses contain an animal byproduct called rennet. While animals are not slaughtered exclusively for rennet, it may not be suitable for all vegetarians. Instead, you can opt for plant-based rennet.
The best way to know if your cheese contains rennet or other animal byproducts is to read the label, if possible. Look for the keywords rennet, animal enzymes, traditional rennet, or pepsin.
Cheesemakers who use plant-based rennet will typically list this as thistle rennet, vegetarian rennet, or plant rennet in the ingredient list.
However, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not require cheesemakers to disclose which type of rennet they use. If the packaging only reads “enzymes” and doesn’t state that the product is vegetarian-friendly, you can assume that animal rennet was used.
If you want to be on the safe side, look for kosher-certified cheeses. According to Jewish religious laws, milk and meat should never mix. Thus, kosher cheese will not contain animal rennet. Look for a certified kosher, K, or KU label when you’re at the grocery store.
Even if you don’t have access to an ingredient list, keep in mind that rennet is typically added to many European and European-style cheeses. It’s almost always used in the following cheeses:
- Parmesan, or Parmigiano-Reggiano
- pecorino Romano
- traditional mozzarella cheese
- goat cheese
Softer cheeses like paneer, cream cheese, or cottage cheese are not made with rennet, as the dairy is curdled using vinegar or lemon juice. Thus, these are safer bets if you’re avoiding animal rennet.
If you’re buying cheese at a specialty store, the salesperson at the counter may be able to tell you which cheeses are free of animal rennet.
The best way to know if cheese contains animal byproducts is by checking the ingredient list. If you don’t have access to one, know that most European-style cheeses are made with animal rennet, whereas softer cheeses are not.
Most vegetarians generally avoid foods that require the death of an animal. Although there are different types of vegetarians, cheese is often considered vegetarian-friendly.
However, certain cheeses contain animal rennet, which contains enzymes commonly sourced from the lining of animal stomachs. While animals are not slaughtered exclusively for rennet, eating it may not be desirable to all vegetarians.
If you’re trying to avoid animal rennet, check the ingredient list if possible, and steer clear of most European or European-style cheeses. Softer cheeses like paneer or cottage cheese are usually safer bets.
Fortunately, there are many vegetarian-friendly options on the market. Look for vegan cheese, as well as dairy cheese made with plant-based rennet.